Goddess of the hunt, p.29
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       Goddess of the Hunt, p.29

         Part #1 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy series by Tessa Dare
 
Page 29

 

  When she went out for her Thursday morning ride, she knew he couldn’t possibly be coming back yet. But searched the horizon for his figure anyway. She imagined him galloping toward her on his stallion, man and beast moving as one. Power, grace, and purpose—intent on one destination. Intent on her.

  Then at breakfast, she imagined him rounding the doorway and fixing her with that same cold blue stare of disapproval he’d worn the morning after they’d kissed. He looked over her olive skin and her ill-fitting gown and her mother’s earrings and saw her for the impostor she was. Then he turned on his heel and left.

  Later, Lucy stood on a stool in her bedchamber while her maid pinned the hem of a borrowed gown. In her mind, Jeremy burst through the door, ripped the dress from her body, and tumbled her onto the bed without speaking a word. Lucy’s involuntary gasp at this vision drew concern from the maid, but a straight pin conveniently shouldered the blame.

  And that afternoon, as the sunlight began to fade, Lucy strolled through the orchard. She leaned back against a pear tree and shut her eyes. Long minutes she stood there, waiting for him to come find her. Waiting for his kiss.

  Then afternoon became evening, and Lucy began to worry that he wouldn’t come at all. She suffered silently through dinner. Afterward, she declined to play cards and repaired to a corner of the drawing room instead, to hide behind a book. She tried to imagine what might have kept him away. Perhaps he hadn’t been able to procure the license. Perhaps he’d changed his mind entirely—come to his senses and realized he couldn’t make an awkward, penniless hoyden his countess. Perhaps his horse had stumbled in the dark and he lay in a ditch by the side of the road, staring up at the stars and whispering her name with his dying breath.

  Lucy snapped her book shut and shook herself. That third “perhaps” was a horrible, horrible thought to have. And it was horribly, horribly wrong of her to prefer it to the second.

  Then she looked up, and he was there. Standing in the doorway wearing a rumpled greatcoat and polished Hessians and his usual inscrutable expression. For the first time in two days, the whirring gears in Lucy’s mind ground to a halt. And the churning fire in her belly roared to life.

  If he had looked improbably handsome in her memory, he looked impossibly so now. Oh, but handsome wasn’t the word for it. A handsome face, one could gaze upon for idle enjoyment, simply admiring the ideal features and pleasing symmetry. And although his features were as strong and well-balanced as ever, this—this was something altogether different than handsome. There was nothing pleasing or idle about it. One glance at him, and her stomach began pitching and rolling like a cork tossed about in a stream. She could scarcely stand to look at him, but she could hardly turn away.

  And surely he hadn’t grown four inches taller in two days. Surely it was only the fact that she was sitting and he was standing that made it seem so. But he looked so tall and broad-shouldered he nearly filled the doorframe; so solid and strong he might just be the cornerstone of the whole blasted house. Lucy blinked and bit the inside of her cheek, just to be sure she wasn’t dreaming.

  After nodding his greetings to the card players, Jeremy approached her where she sat by the hearth. He was fresh from the stables, she could tell. When he bent over her hand, she could smell the cool wind that lingered in his hair and his clothing. His hand felt chilled as it lifted hers; his lips a curious mixture of frost and heat as he kissed her fingers. His eyes held hers for only a brief moment. Just long enough for Lucy to read the same strange combination of coolness and warmth mingled there.

  “Lucy,” he said simply. As if only to confirm that he had not wandered into the wrong drawing room on the wrong manor and kissed the wrong lady’s hand.

  Then he released her hand, straightened, and turned away. The instant he turned, she wedged her hand between her thigh and the cushion of her chair. But her elbow still trembled, rattling against her ribs in the most mortifying manner.

  Henry rose from the table and tugged on his waistcoat. “I’ve spoken with the vicar. He’ll be here tomorrow at ten. ”

  “Good,” Jeremy replied. “I had my solicitor draw up the papers. But I’d rather discuss them in the morning, if it’s all the same to you. It’s been a long day, and I’m wanting a bath. ”

  “And a stiff drink, I’d expect. ” Henry sat back down and picked up his hand of cards. “We’ll see you in the morning, then. ”

  Jeremy took his leave of them quietly, then turned back to her. “Lucy,” he said again, nodding curtly. Then he was gone.

  Lucy crossed her arms over her chest and sank back into her chair. What had just happened? She’d spent a full two days alternately dreaming of and dreading this moment, and now it had come. And passed. And aside from a little kiss that had turned her arm to jelly, it seemed she would receive no further insight into Jeremy’s state of mind until he showed up in the morning to marry her. In her best and worst imaginings—whether he rejected her or fell at her feet or pinned her to the bed—at least she had known where she stood with him.

  And what did she know now? It was confirmed, twice, that he remembered her name. He still intended to marry her, she gathered. That was all.

  Another night of rumination and conjecture stretched endlessly before her. If there were any answers to be found in the cracks of her ceiling, Lucy knew she would have divined them by now. She would surely go mad by morning.

  His bath drawn, Jeremy divested himself of his coat and cravat before setting to work on his cuffs. He heard the door swing open and turned his head to glimpse a familiar swirl of crimson velvet and chestnut curls. Lucy shut the door, turned, and flattened herself against it, clutching her dressing gown closed at the neck.

  “I need to tell you something. ”

  Jeremy’s hand froze. He had been in the process of rolling up his shirtsleeve, but he began to roll it back down. “Do you want to call it off, then?”Damn . He hadn’t meant to blurt that out.

  Her brow wrinkled. “Do you?”

  “I asked first. ”

  “Yes, but you brought it up. Have you changed your mind?”

  “Lucy, I’m here. I have the special license and the marriage settlements. I rode three hours in the dark. I haven’t changed my mind. ”

  “Oh. ” She softened against the door. “I didn’t come to call it off. ”

  Relief flooded through him. Muscles knotted from hours of riding and days of uncertainty began to work loose.

  Jeremy rubbed the back of his neck, slowly shaking his head. She wanted to know if he’d changed his mind. How could he change his mind, when his mind had nothing to do with this? He was not thinking. He was acting. He was claiming. And most distressing of all, he wasfeeling .

  He could have returned that afternoon. He’d finished business with his solicitor that morning, procured the license the day before. The letters he’d spent all afternoon writing could just as well have been written from Waltham Manor, or a week later for that matter. But he’d dawdled over them, waiting to leave until the sky was dark and the day nearly gone.

  And when he’d arrived, he’d needed to see her immediately. Once he had, he’d felt equally compelled to leave. She hadn’t said a word to him, and that suited him fine. Because if he didn’t give her the chance to speak, she couldn’t have a chance to say no.

  But now she was here, and she didn’t want to call it off, and how Jeremy was going to keep from kissing her senseless that instant, he didn’t know. Good Lord, it had been hard enough to keep from doing so in the drawing room, with six people looking on. Now here she was again in that damned red velvet robe, and they were all alone. In his bedchamber. A ragged sigh escaped his lips.

  She heard it. “Perhaps I should go. You must be tired. ”

  “I am tired,” he answered honestly. “And you should go. But before you do, I have something for you. ”

  “Really?” A surprised smile spread across her face, and s
he stepped away from the door.

  Jeremy reached into the pocket of his coat where it hung over the back of a chair. He pulled out a small velvet box and held it out to her. She stared at it, but made no motion to take it from his hand.

  “What is it?”

  “Well, opening it would be a certain method of finding out. ” He picked up her hand where it dangled at her side and turned it palm-side up. He placed the box flat in her palm. She simply stared at it, then looked up at him with eyebrows raised.

  “For pity’s sake, Lucy. It won’t bite you. ” He took the box out of her hand and opened it himself. “It’s a betrothal ring. I thought you should have one. ” He glanced at the mantel clock. “Although, considering there are only eleven hours remaining in our betrothal, it now seems a bit silly. ”

  She stared at the ring nestled in its box. A single, round-cut ruby glowed like an ember against the black velvet, flanked by flashing diamonds. Still she made no move to take it. Finally Jeremy plucked the thick circle of gold from its bed and cast the box onto the table. He picked up her hand again and pushed the ring over her finger. “I suppose I should have chosen an emerald to match your eyes. But for some reason, the color red stuck in my mind. ”

  He released her hand. Lucy took a step toward the fire and lifted the ring before her face. She slowly twisted her hand back and forth, inspecting the stone in the firelight. The crimson sleeve of her dressing gown pooled down around her bare elbow. Jeremy’s blood pooled down to his groin. “If you don’t like it, I’ll buy you another,” he said.

  “Another?” She looked up at him, eyes wide. “And you would, wouldn’t you?”

  He shrugged. “One for every finger, if you wish. ”

  “I don’t need any others. I don’t even need this. ” She smiled and arched an eyebrow. “But you’re never getting it away from me now. ” Looking down at her hand, she waggled her fingers again. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. ”

  Nor I, Jeremy thought. The firelight gilded the lines of her profile and filtered through her hair, dusting a rubyred halo over her curls. Her neck curved gracefully over the ring as her eyes sparked with pure delight. She looked one part magpie, one part Madonna.

  She glanced up at him suddenly. “Sophia doesn’t have a lover. ”

  Jeremy blinked. “What?”

  “That’s what I came to tell you. ” Her words came out in a high-pitched rush. “That letter—it was all lies. Just a product of her wild imagination and too much claret. She hasn’t been compromised by anyone. I can explain it all to Henry. We don’t have to marry. ”

  He paused. “Let me be certain I understand you. You think I offered to marry you to saveSophia’s reputation?”

  “Well, and Toby’s engagement. He is your friend, isn’t he?”

  Jeremy winced. Even now, when she was betrothed to him and wearing his ring, he hated the sound of that name on her lips. But perhaps he’d mind hearing Toby’s name less, if once—just once—Lucy would speakhis . “Our friendship doesn’t extend that far. ”

  “Oh. ” She stared down at the ring again. “Then why are you doing this?”

  He deliberately skirted her question, moving toward the bar. “It’s as I said. Ours may not be the most conventional of betrothals, but it seemed only fitting that you should have a ring. ”

  “Not the ring. This,” she said, looking up and gesturing into the space between them. “Why are you marrying me?”

  He sighed. “Lucy, it’s not Sophia’s reputation that’s endangered. It’s yours. After what almost happened in the wardrobe … and what nearly happened in Henry’s study … I have a duty to you, as a gentleman. ”

  “A duty,” she repeated numbly.

  “An obligation. Of honor. ”
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